Thank the Satanic Panic for Beetlejuice, The Addams Family, and the Golden Age of Creepy Kids' Shit

Illustration: Elena Scotti (Photos: Getty Images, AP, Amazon, Screenshots via YouTube)

In the late 1980s, around the time I started kindergarten, my older sister came home from church with a list of bands that worshipped the devil, according to her youth pastor. Eight years older than me and fiercely religious, my sister secretly went through all five rooms of our shitty rented house collecting cassette tapes. Springsteen, the Eagles, Led Zeppelin, all the dad rock I cherished as a five-year-old, had made the list. She took the cassettes to our tiny North Louisiana town’s biggest evangelical church to burn them in the parking lot alongside all the “satanic” materials her middle school classmates pilfered from their own homes on the advice of her youth minister, who presumably poured the kerosene and lit the match.

For kids who grew up evangelical in the ’80s, especially in the Bible Belt, this story is not at all uncommon. The Satanic Panic wasn’t the punchline it eventually became in much of the rest of the country. It was a real terror born of the belief that a network of satanic cults across America were committing ritual sex abuse and murder when they weren’t plotting to turn kids into devil worshippers through profane lyrics in rock music. In addition to these perceived threats from satanic cults, evangelical leaders and parents also worried about covert indoctrination into the occult from children’s entertainment, such as the popular cartoon He-Man, which church leaders warned might offer kids the message that Jesus probably couldn’t even take Skeletor in a fight.

But in the ’80s and ’90s, bands like Black Sabbath and Slayer worked hand in hand with evangelical leaders (or in the case of Jeff Fenholt, made the jump from metal band member to televangelist), with the former capitalizing on the Satanic Panic in order to sell goth-tinged pop culture to young people while the latter sold parents its cure—Jesus, or at least books, television shows, and lectures about how to draw kids back to him. And this symbiotic marketing trickled down into the dark glamour of kids’ classics like the family-friendly (but still incredibly horny) black magic-loving Addams Family remakes and Beetlejuice. Pop culture distilled from the Beelzebub-as-business-model mindset of the late ’80s and early ’90s also had the perhaps unintended side effect of creating an entire generation, myself included, of adults whose childhoods were shaped by the Satanic Panic, for whom the occult is as commonplace as avoiding windowless white vans, craving sugar for breakfast, or any of the other behaviors ingrained by way of Saturday morning cartoons or after-school specials.

In his journal article, “Ritual as Accusation and Atrocity: Satanic Ritual Abuse, Gnostic Libertinism, and Primal Murder,” Dr. David Frankfurter, professor of religion at Boston University, defines the Satanic Panic as a period that lasted from the beginning of the 1980s and into the ’90s, marked by a widespread belief that “Satanic cults were preying on children and adults.” These fears came from a patchwork of American fears around cult indoctrination, a leftover from panic over counterculture gone amiss in 1960s groups like the Manson Family, as well as “evangelical Christian demonology.” But what seemed to marry these fears was a sudden preponderance of “alleged childhood memories ‘retrieved’ by crusading therapists [which] imagined secret intergenerational devil worshippers who initiated children into perverse and bloody rites, sacrificed specially bred infants and small animals, and engaged in incestuous orgies.”

These “recovered memories” detailing horrific abuse were often coaxed by “experts” in the field, who were, by Frankfurter’s account, often evangelical leaders. And though the Satanic Panic would eventually become mostly a means of selling goth culture to dorky kids, at the beginning the Satanic Panic was actually dangerous, threatening lives and livelihoods.

Though it’s hard to pin down exactly when the Satanic Panic began and at what point it eventually petered out, the panic was at its most serious in the early-to-mid 1980s. In 1980, Michelle Remembers, written by psychiatrist Lawrence Pazer, detailed the “recovered” memories of satanic ritual abuse “uncovered” during therapy sessions with a patient, Michelle Smith (whom he later married). From there came all manner of graphic accounts of childhood sex abuse and even murder at the hands of satanic cults. These accounts were usually provided by women and children as a result of hypnosis and “body work” during therapy sessions, later thought to be the product of people in a highly suggestible state providing the specific genre of trauma narrative their questioners wanted to hear. The fact that these stories generally came out under the auspices of therapy provided a clinical air of authority for the horrified public. Psychologists who uncovered the memories, journalists who reported out the stories, and concerned advocates who attempted to bring the perpetrators to justice all served to lend credibility to the incredible.

One of the most highly publicized witch-hunts to come out of Michelle Remembers and the ensuing panic was the indictment of seven teachers at the McMartin Preschool in Manhattan Beach, California. After a parent went to police fearing her 2-year-old had been molested at preschool, authorities sent out a letter to 200 families connected with the school, listing the name of the suspect. In the indictment hearings, 18 children would give testimonies that they had been ritually abused by a satanic cult, testimony that would later come under scrutiny when experts determined that the children were simply picking up on the leads of their adult questioners and offering the information they believed grown-ups wanted to hear. After seven years of legal troubles, the court found no evidence of wrongdoing on the part of any of the accused.

But the McMartin Preschool incident, as well as many others, had already made headlines, leaving many Americans, especially religious Americans, concerned about ritualistic satanic abuse in their own communities. And these fears made it fairly easy for evangelical leaders to draw audiences by capitalizing on parents’ worry for their children. Finding Satan in everyday pop culture became a business model for religious talking heads who quickly found they could make a name for themselves out of renouncing devil worship. They fostered ministries professing a commitment to “spiritual warfare” against “an organized world of Satanic evil,” according to Frankfurter. Conversely, the movement was a boon for musicians and other artists who got free word-of-mouth marketing and street cred with teens looking to rebel after being labeled demonic. 

“Thanks to this book my mother set all my cabbage patch kids on fire while I was at school,” reads one Google Books review of Turmoil in the Toybox, a 1986 tome by Phil Phillps, who carved out a career in the late ’80s and early ’90s fanning the flames of evangelical panic over devil worship. (His four books and television special illuminate the hidden dangers of secretly satanic children’s media, such as Care Bears and Barney.)

Phillips was far from the only person to get a career boost out of protecting youth from satanic influence. Talk radio host and pastor Bob Larson was outspoken in his quest to keep American children from falling prey to drug abuse, heavy metal, and the ritual murder he believed came along with these, by his way of thinking, equally dangerous threats. In 1989, Larson accepted an invitation from publisher Bob Guccione Jr., whose father founded Penthouse, to go on tour with heavy metal band Slayer and publish his account for Spin magazine. His feature, titled “Desperately Seeking Satan,” was the cover story of the magazine’s May 1989 issue. Larson would further capitalize on the experience by offering himself to parents as an authority on satanic youth culture both on his show and in books like 1989's Satanism: The Seduction of America’s Youth, a copy of which I recently rediscovered in my parents’ garage.

In the book, Larson calls Slayer “fire-breathing demons from rock ‘n’ roll hell,” while also questioning their commitment to devil worship. Somehow, the idea that kids are probably being recruited to devilry by charlatans make Slayer’s lyrics, such as “Satan our master in mayhem guides us with every first step,” more offensive and dangerous to Larson, who worries teenagers are being spurred to commit bestiality by songs written and performed by people who wouldn’t even fuck an animal for Satan themselves. Larson accusing Slayer of using the devil to make money in a book my parents paid money for pretty much sums up satanic panic business model.

But a perhaps overlooked detail in the argument that pop culture was turning kids to the devil was the fact details about satanic ritual abuse were actually cribbed directly from pop culture. Dr. Joseph Laycock, professor of religious studies at Texas State University, notes in his article, “Carnal Knowledge: The Epistemology of Sexual Trauma in Witches Sabbaths, Satanic Ritual Abuse, and Alien Abduction Narratives,” the horrific sexual abuse detailed in Michelle Remembers was likely taken from depictions of satanic rituals in popular culture in films such as Rosemary’s Baby, The Exorcist, and The Omen:

“As James R. Lewis comments, ‘While the publication of Michelle Remembers in 1980 may have been —as many analysts have asserted—the precipitating event that set the scare into motion, it was Hollywood that plowed the ground of cultural awareness in which the seed of the Satanic ritual abuse idea was able to take root and grow.’ Thus, the entire moral panic over [satanic ritual abuse] SRA can be regarded as a reversal of fact and fiction, aided by the authority of a medical expert. This connection shows the incredible power of popular media to affect plausibility structures and to shape popular ideas about the religious other.”

Movies like Rosemary’s Baby, about fictional satanic ritual abuse, were given a cloak of believability by “true” accounts such as Michelle Remembers, written by a member of the medical community. From there, it was easy for the media and readers to find devil worship around every corner, leading to a widespread saturation of the idea that devil worship was prevalent and harmful. In another work focused on America’s collective obsession with cults, Laycock describes the process by which stories like those in Michelle Remembers, perhaps born of horror movies in the first place, led to a full-blown panic where innocent people were indicted for ritual satanic child abuse. Laycock describes the cycle in three parts: medicalization, deviance amplification, and convergence. In the first stage, deviant behavior is defined as a medical problem, which legitimizes its treatment by medical authorities, such as recovered memory specialists. Then, media coverage of these instances provides something called “deviance amplification” which provides a few choice instances as a “tip of the iceberg” for a much deeper problem (such as the McMartin Preschool). Convergence comes when “two or more activities are linked so as to implicitly draw a parallel between them.” Laycock uses the case of comparisons between the Branch Davidians and the People’s Temple as fueling the tragedy at Waco. But on a much smaller, minuscule stakes scale, my sister’s youth pastor likely read about Slayer worshipping the devil and decided Bruce Springsteen must as well, resulting in my copy of Nebraska going up in flames.

And along with horrific modern-day witch hunts came the attempts to cash in on the deviance amplification in the proliferation of Satanic Panic stories by convincing parents that He-Man and the Care Bears worshipped the devil. In a late-’80s infomercial promoting Turmoil in the Toybox, author Phil Phillips pantomimes terror as he describes the rams-head power staff and skull-shaped castle in popular children’s cartoon He-Man, telling an equally concerned host that he’d recently heard a tale of a little boy informing his mother that Jesus couldn’t possibly be master of the universe, as He-Man had already laid claim to that title. “Well we’ve seen over the last several years, a slow, subtle occultic influence in our cartoons,” Phillps’s interviewer says. If bands like Slayer were overtly preaching devil worship, by this line of thinking, there must be a network of satanists trying to slip the word of the dark lord into media intended for children.

But the thing is, he’s not entirely wrong. Dumb, but not wrong. Amid the fervor of the satanic panic, the 1980s and early 1990s were absolutely a boom time for creepy kids’ shit. The cycle of deviance amplification and convergence in America’s collective cultural imagination of the early ’80s seems to have resulted in a deviance softening as well, eventually making the occult, a source of terror earlier in the decade, a fun pastime for kids by the end of it. In addition to Skeletor’s Baphomet-topped staff, ’80s children interested in the occult had their druthers of toys and entertainment to choose from, from the Ghostbusters hearse to the Saturday morning cartoon of the same name, to the films of Tim Burton and countless others who pretty much cashed in on the fact that the macabre was having a cultural moment.

“You know, if I had seen a ghost at your age, I would have been scared out of my mind,” Barbara (a recently deceased homeowner played by Geena Davis) scolds teenaged Lydia in Tim Burton’s 1988's horror-comedy classic Beetlejuice, which spawned a popular cartoon of the same name. But Lydia isn’t scared, she’s intrigued by the demonic possession taking place in her home, as were legions of children watching. Though Casper the Friendly Ghost (which also had a memorable, sexy-but-for-children 1990s revival), the Addams Family, and the Munsters had long been a part of the zeitgeist, in the late ’80s and early ’90s— thanks in part to the demonization of the demonic by evangelicals—fun creepy shit really reached a cultural epoch. The Addams Family reboots are drawn from Pat Robertson’s worst fears—that constantly-boning occultists walk among decent, God-fearing white families and teaching their children, who act as ghoulish little disciples, that the Puritans were genocidal hypocrites. The Tim Burton animated classic, The Nightmare Before Christmas, is literally the exact storyline Phil Phillips moralized against—a ghoulish group of misfits, made powerful by our cultural love of Halloween attempts to expand into controlling Christ’s birthday, in one scene offering an angelic little boy a severed head by way of Christmas gift.

In much the same way Tim Burton’s cinematic mentor Ed Wood capitalized on 1950s fear of juvenile delinquents in films like The Violent Years, Burton and other filmmakers of the time managed to capture the sexy campiness of the Satanic Panic for an audience of young people toying with the idea that devil worship must be kind of fun if it got old nerds so bent out of shape.

“I do think we have strong evidence that when people like Bob Larson warn about the dangers of something it’s basically a form of viral marketing,” Laycock told me. “Before The Exorcist, most people regarded the Ouiji board as sort of a lame parlor trick, like the hula hoop or something, but once the movie came out and people associated with sort of demonic risk-taking then it was sort of exciting, and people started buying the Ouija board again.”

The collective warnings against the occult young Gen X and old millennials grew up consuming, coupled with the wild west period of children’s entertainment, where it seemed anything could be a kids’ movie if kids liked it, created a perfect storm of innocent entertainment featuring occult symbolism and fun dabbling in the idea of death cults.

Now, thirty-something years later, the kids who grew up, on one hand, being told that a fun game of Dungeons and Dragons could be a gateway to satanic ritual murder sacrifice and, on the other, could spend Saturday morning watching Lydia Dietz hang out with a fun-loving demon who once tried to force her into a child marriage, have wholeheartedly embraced the astrology and tarot Bob Larson so vehemently warned us against. According to Dr. Laycock, that could be because we have no fucking idea what to believe. He says that this collective interest in the supernatural unencumbered by central authority could come from the fact that many younger Americans identify as “Nones,” or people who sometimes see themselves as spiritual but have no declared religion:

“A trend that goes with [interest in mysticism and the occult] is the rise of people who identify as having no religion. In the sociology of religion, they call these people the nones,” Laycock says. “Right now, America is about 70 percent Christian, 20 percent none, and that last 10 percent is every other religion that you’ve ever heard of. So I do think that we are seeing kind of an unprecedented level of people who are sort of spiritual seekers and don’t really have a home in any particular tradition. So there’s a lot more room for things like tarot and astrology.”

A recent Baylor religion survey on paranormal beliefs found that people are more inclined to believe in things like ghosts and the supernatural if they have an inclination toward spiritualism but don’t regularly attend church, putting many of the “nones” firmly in the category of people who are interested in exploration of the spirit without all the forced music-burning historically advocated by more organized religion.

So maybe it was the Satanic Panic that created a fertile breeding ground for the prevalence of mildly goth but mostly joking millennials (again, I include myself in those numbers). However, I recently re-watched Beetlejuice at a drive-in theater with a few socially distant tables and witnessed a group of children around seven or so—about the same age I was in my first encounter with the movie—silently gape at the brilliant dinner-table demonic possession scene as if they themselves were possessed. So who can say? Maybe Phil Phillips was right all along about that backseat He-Man kid, and children are just truly and naturally inclined to worship the devil.

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snide-o-mite
Snide-O-Mite

I don’t remember where I read this, but my understanding of Satanic Panic started when a bipolar, alcoholic mother was convinced her toddler was being molested and indoctrinated into Satanism. She’d made a bunch of outlandish accusations, including the bit about being flushed down a toilet, but then she died before anyone could understand that her accusations were part of her untreated condition.

I do remember learning about this after I read Gillian Flynn’s Dark Places.

Anyone else heard this too?